Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

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Thinking About Boots

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Since I finished Planetwalker, I’ve been thinking about boots. You see, John Francis started on his long walk across the U.S. more than 30 years ago, and footwear was different then. Francis wore heavy leather boots, the kind that, today, you’d consider old-fashioned. Now if you wear boots when you walk–and a lot of people prefer shoes–they’re probably lightweight, with GoreTex uppers and one-piece soles.

Heavy leather boots are, well, heavy. That makes them tiring to wear when you’re walking long distances. But they have advantages over fabric boots. They last a long time: I bought a pair when I was 17, and I was still wearing them 20 years later. They last that long because you can get them fixed: when the heels or soles wear out, a cobbler can replace them. That’s not the case with fabric boots. When the heels wear down, you have to buy a whole new pair.

When Francis walked across the U.S., he would stop and get his boots repaired when they needed it. He even carried spare Vibram heels with him, just in case a small-town cobbler didn’t have the right ones in stock. Two things about that are striking. First, 30 years ago, people still got their shoes fixed, because their shoes were designed to be fixable, and second, it wasn’t unusual to find a shoe-repair shop, even in a small town. Today, everything’s different. Shoes and boots are more likely to be designed to be disposable now. So if Francis were to walk across the U.S. today, he’d be replacing his boots every thousand miles, instead of repairing them.

We’ve gained something with lighter footwear designs: they’re more comfortable and not as hot. But we’ve lost something, too. Sometimes I wish I had the old-fashioned kind of boots. After all, isn’t it better to fix something instead of throwing it away?

Across the Moon: Two Unprepared Brothers Traverse Iceland on Foot, by Jamie Bowlby-Whiting, and Walking and Trekking in Iceland, by Paddy Dillon

I’ve been watching a lot of Icelandic TV series on Netflix lately. And as a result, I’ve become interested in the landscape of that fragment of Europe sitting in the North Atlantic: the barren hills, the glaciers, the stark mountains. Would it be possible to walk there, I wondered? To find out, I ordered two books on the subject: Jamie Bowlby-Whiting’s first person account of crossing Iceland from south to north on foot with his brother Elliott, Across the Moon: Two Unprepared Brothers Traverse Iceland on Foot, and a guide to walking in Iceland, written by Paddy Dillon and published by Cicerone.

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The subtitle of Bowlby-Whiting’s book tells most of the story: neither he nor his brother had any experience hiking before they attempted their walk across Iceland’s bleak and dangerous mountains. Their gear was useless, they weren’t physically up to hiking 25 or 30 kilometres per day while carrying 30 kilograms of gear (and not many people are–myself included, as I discovered in Ontario two years ago), and their only map covered just a fraction of their route. Because they weren’t prepared, they made many mistakes. They tried heading directly north, using a compass, and as a result they found their way blocked by raging glacial rivers which they had to wade across. Their packs were too heavy, so they got rid of most of their food; they ended up living on chocolate and uncooked ramen noodles for the remainder of their trip. Nothing cooperated: not the terrain, not the weather. A nearby volcano was threatening to erupt, and everyone told them they shouldn’t be walking near it. And yet they somehow managed to complete their journey. They were lucky, I think, because things could easily have gone very wrong for them. Well, even more wrong.

Across the Moon is a self-published book, and although I typically don’t bother to read anything that couldn’t find a regular publisher, I’m glad I made an exception this time. Bowlby-Whiting is an engaging narrator, frank about his mistakes and the liberties he takes with the truth early in the book. I like the book’s structure as well: reflective chapters about Bowlby-Whiting’s life and his relationship with his brother alternate with chapters about the walk itself. It’s a fun read.

And yet, I can’t believe the two brothers attempted this hike, given their experience and their equipment. Let me give you an example. Bowlby-Whiting always took off his shoes while wading through those glacial torrents. His brother Elliott did not. Now, everything I’ve read about fording rivers has said that it’s a terrible idea to do it without footwear: rocks can be sharp or slippery and it’s easier to fall when you’re barefoot. In his book on walking in Iceland, Paddy Dillon suggests carrying a pair of Crocs for river crossings (and as camp shoes). So does Justin Lichter, the author of Trail Tested: A Thru-Hiker’s Guide to Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking. “If the ford is tough then do not go barefoot!” Lichter says. “If the river is really gentle wear shoes when fording a river. They help with traction and protect your feet in case there are jagged rocks in the water.” So whether the ford is tough or not, you protect your feet, according to Lichter.

But wearing shoes while crossing those rivers didn’t help Elliott in the end. His shoes were cheap, you see, and they shrank and twisted as they dried. He couldn’t wear them afterwards and ended up walking the final 200 kilometres with flip-flops taped to his feet. I can’t imagine that. The moral of the story: don’t buy cheap shoes, and always carry a pair of decent lightweight sandals.

Flip-flops. I remember seeing a young Canadian walking the Camino wearing flip-flops and carrying a hockey duffel bag instead of a backpack. He was from Kelowna, I think. Everyone has their own way, I guess. And the Bowlby-Whitings managed to complete a trek I’d never attempt, even with preparation and decent gear. So who am I to say?

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Walking and Trekking in Iceland is a completely different kind of book. In fact, it’s the kind of book the brothers might’ve considered consulting before setting out on their trek. Dillon describes both day-hikes and multi-day treks in different parts of the island. He also explains important stuff about Iceland that foreigners might not know–like how to buy topographical maps of the island, how to get access to private mountain huts, how the country’s bus service works, and when to go if you’re thinking about a walking holiday there. (August is busy and before June it’s too cold.) It’s the kind of book I’d have in a Ziplock bag in my coat pocket or at the top of my backpack if I were walking in Iceland, the kind of book one could use to plan a walking holiday in that country.

So read Across the Moon for a story about what not to do, one that luckily has a happy ending, and read Walking and Trekking in Iceland if you find yourself thinking about visiting that country.

 

Walking to Work at Minus 39 Degrees

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What’s it like walking five kilometres to work when the windchill is minus 39 degrees? Surprisingly warm, as it turned out. This morning, I must’ve been wearing one layer too many, because I was quite perspired by the time I got to my office. Even my hands were sweaty in my mitts.

My twin concessions to the cold were to pull my balaclava up over the end of my nose (which meant removing my glasses, which would’ve otherwise fogged up and frosted over), and to pull up the hood of my light gore-tex windbreaker. Perhaps it was the hood, but I was a lot warmer today than I was yesterday, when the mercury was a good 10 or 15 degrees higher.

I wonder if the hysteria about the cold–the endless extreme cold warnings on the radio, for example–is necessary. Of course, if you don’t have a place to live, these temperatures could easily be deadly. But for most of us, going outside needn’t present any insurmountable difficulties–as long as we dress for the cold. And if that means having to cover up exposed skin to avoid frostbite, well, that’s what it means. We live in this climate and we have to come to terms with that fact, don’t we?

 

Will Self’s “Psychogeography”

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I’m reading Will Self’s book Psychogeography and came across this defence of walking:

I’ve taken to long-distance walking as a means of dissolving the mechanized matrix which compresses the space-time continuum, and decouples human from physical geography. So this isn’t walking for leisure–that would be merely frivolous, or for exercise–which would be tedious.

Indeed. My toe seems better, and I’m looking forward to dissolving the matrix which compresses space-time later this week.

App Testing and Google Earth

I met with Rob Knox from the Department of Geography last week. He explained what .kml and .kmz files are for and how to integrate GPS information with Google Earth. He showed me GPS tracking units and examples of the way he’s tracked walks and bike rides using them. It was very productive, and right afterwards I found an app for my phone that allows me to export GPS data to Google Earth in a .kmz file. So this is what this morning’s walk to work looked like on Google Earth:

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I’m going to keep testing this app to see how much battery life it uses, but I might take Rob up on his offer to borrow a GPS unit for my walk in Ontario in June. I’ll have to test that thoroughly, too, if that’s the direction I decide to take. However, I like the images this app produces through Google Earth much better than the ones made by the app I’ve been using to map my walks (called, not coincidentally, “Map My Walk”), even if it’s a little more complicated to create them. When I look ahead to my walk in June, I think it will make a lot more sense to include a picture rather than a map. I’ll be walking through territory that originally belonged to the Six Nations, and I can’t help thinking there’s something a little dodgy, politically speaking, about being a settler and mapping that space. An image, though, feels different.

In other news, it looks like I broke my pinky toe, again, on my first walk on the Old 16 Road loop. I remember feeling a sudden shooting pain in my foot, and that must be when it happened. That toe has broken many times before in the last 25 years; it’s something I just have to live with. Sometimes, if my boots are too tight, it will break when my foot swells during a walk. I’m not too worried–the same toe broke about six weeks before I walked the Camino de Santiago and it healed before I left, despite all the training walks I took–and although it’s too swollen to fit most of my shoes, it still fits into my hiking boots. Really, that’s all I need. That, and ibuprofen, and I should be fine.

Same Path, But Shorter?

Yesterday, I decided to try the Old 16 Road loop again. This time, though, I walked in the other direction–clockwise instead of counter-clockwise–and I took the footpath through the southeastern suburbs. Otherwise the route didn’t change. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be some three kilometres shorter than what I walked on Friday. The footpath must be a shortcut.

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A light rain was falling when I left the house, but it stopped after an hour or so. It was quite warm for mid-April and I was able to walk without my coat. I was carrying dog biscuits again but Mr. Angry Dog didn’t make an appearance. Maybe he was spending the day inside. Three other dogs came out to take a look at me, but they were safely behind a fence. So I didn’t get to test my treat theory again. Too bad: I really need more data.

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When I got to the Cowessess Gas and Grocery, I stopped listening to Mark Maron’s interview with David Byrne and started listening to meadowlarks and the sound of the wind in the power lines–an unearthly, resonant growl.Walking in the other direction, I noticed new things: railway tracks, a slowly collapsing barn, a “road impassable when wet” sign, a home quarter that’s been cleared for the plough with a bulldozer.

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I walked through the university and stopped by the Visual Arts department’s open house for a glass of iced tea. Then I headed home for a Guinness and a rest. I’m still surprised that the footpath cut the distance so significantly; if I walk this route again, maybe I’ll stay on the street, to make it a little longer. In any case, it’s good to know I’m getting closer to being prepared for my long walk in June.

 

 

 

 

 

Walking to the Regina Indian Industrial School

This morning I suggested that we walk to the site of the former Regina Indian Industrial School. I had a vague idea where it was and an optimistic sense of how far we’d have to walk. I was right about the location, but it was a lot farther than I’d imagined. But pilgrimages should be difficult, and this walk counts as a pilgrimage, I think.

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The site of the school isn’t hard to find. When you get to the corner of Dewdney Avenue and Pinkie Road, you turn north. There’s a big liquid propane gas facility on the west side of the road, and just before you get to some sheds belonging to a construction company, you’ll see a white rail fence with weather-worn teddy bears and toys fastened to it. That’s where the school was–or at least where its graveyard was, and is. Using ground-penetrating radar, archaeologists have found at least 40 unmarked graves within and outside that fence. Those children died when they were students at the school, and nobody even had the decency to return their bodies to their families. Like everything else about residential schools, it’s a tremendous wrong. It’s shameful. At least it looks like the city will purchase the site to prevent it from being developed. Good thing, because we walked by the site of a huge housing and retail development called Westerra, which is a sign of what’s likely to happen to this part of the city in the future. Without care and attention, the site of the Regina Indian Industrial School, and its graveyard, could easily be obliterated by a similar development.

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I left some tobacco by the fence and thought about those children. Then we started back. We stopped at the Sakimay First Nation’s gas bar and convenience store at the corner of Dewdney and Pinkie. I’d hoped they sold bags of bannock, like the Cowessess First Nation does at their gas station on the other side of town, but no luck. Oh well. We bought a little bag of chocolates instead. Then we made the long trudge along 13th Avenue back home. Altogether we walked 21.5 kilometres today–a reasonable afternoon’s work.

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